A handful of people who live near Robie Street are opposed to the city’s plan to widen the street to add a bus lane.
Halifax created the Robie Street Transportation Reserve during the Centre Plan process in 2021. The reserve sets aside land the municipality wants to buy.
“When a transportation reserve is applied through a municipal planning strategy and land use bylaw, it prohibits development and provides the Municipality with up to five years to purchase the property from the time the transportation reserve is in effect,” planner Ross Grant wrote in a report to the Regional Centre Community Council this week.
“After five years, the lands revert to the underlying zone. Property owners affected by the reserve can also request that the Municipality purchase the designated lands within a year; if the Municipality does not purchase the lands within one year of the date of this request the reserve expires and the lands revert to the underlying zone.”
HRM needs the land to complete the second phase of its Young and Robie streets transit priority project. Phase 1 saw the municipality install a bus lane on one side of the street, northbound between Young Street and Cogswell Road, in 2020. HRM also added a southbound bus lane to part of the street, but not between Almon and Cunard streets.
That’s because the road in that area isn’t wide enough to accommodate an extra lane. That section of the bus lane is Phase 2.
As Erica Butler reported for the Halifax Examiner in 2019, Phase 2 wasn’t a sure thing:
Plans to complete full lanes in both directions are being relegated to Phase 2 of the project, which may or may not happen. According to the staff report, “Phase 1 upgrades provide transit priority benefits that are worthwhile even if Phase 2 is not eventually pursued.”
The split into “phases” has some logic to it. The transit lanes in Phase 1 can be achieved without the city having to widen roads or buy property. According to the staff report, “along most of the corridor, construction will be limited to modification to pavement markings and signage. Proposed upgrades at the Robie Street – Cunard Street intersection represent the most significant construction works included in Phase 1.”
Phase 2 is still “being investigated and timelines are currently undetermined,” according to the project page on halifax.ca.
In June 2020, council approved the city’s Rapid Transit Strategy. That’s a bus rapid transit plan, meaning that on the plan’s four routes, buses get priority. One of those routes, the green line, uses Robie Street.
That strategy may never be properly implemented, depending on funding from other levels of government. But bus lanes on the lines are crucial to its success. Butler summed up the benefits in 2019:
Transit priority lanes not only speed up bus trips, but they also up the reliability of taking the bus, both key factors in attracting riders. Halifax Transit staff estimate that during the PM peak travel hour, buses along Robie Street between Young and South Streets can take up to 18 minutes longer than when buses are travelling the corridor at non-peak times. Eliminating that delay, combined with small increases to private vehicle congestion resulting from converted lanes, means a multi-pronged incentive for people to change more of their trips from private cars to transit.
Neighbourhood residents say they were unaware
The Centre Plan was the result of years of public consultation, meetings, and a million sticky notes. But a handful of people who live near Robie Street said nobody told them about the transportation reserve.
Peggy Cameron, typically associated with Friends of the Halifax Common, issued a news release on Monday.
“Local residents oppose the road widening as it will destroy the few lovely blocks along Robie that make it work as a neighbourhood,” Cameron wrote.
“The slight slowing down of traffic for the four blocks is exactly what helps keep pedestrians safe from dangerous speeding. The slowing of buses and other vehicles is minor and an asset to the character and life of the city.”
Cameron wrote that most residents are unaware of the plan to widen the street to add bus lanes. Those include a “First Nations housing community” that didn’t know of the plan, according to Cameron, even though it will effect [sic] four of their properties. There are another six to eight housing co-ops and two youth shelters “directly or indirectly” affected, Cameron said.
“I’ve lived on Charles Street for over 35 years and I have not been made aware of any neighbourhood consultations concerning this plan to expropriate land to widen Robie,” area resident and musician Mike Cowie said in the release.
Peter Zimmer, chair of the Halifax Cycling Coalition, is also opposed to the bus lane.
In the release, Zimmer cited the concept of “induced capacity,” better known as induced demand. That principle says that when an already congested road is widened to accommodate more traffic, the road just gets clogged with new traffic. The concept doesn’t typically apply to the addition of bus lanes.
“Robie Street is already busy and noisy. But the section from Charles to North St is human-scale with buildings and trees on both sides. That make vehicles slow down. That keeps it safer,” Zimmer said in the release.
Former councillor and MLA Howard Epstein is also quoted in the release.
“Road widening is not necessary or inline with prioritizing public transportation,” Epstein said. “A simple solution is overhead bidirectional lights.”
Residents invite mayor for tour of Robie Street
Cameron, Cowie, Zimmer, and Epstein are organizing a media conference for 10:30am on Tuesday. In another news release on Monday, Cameron said they’d invited Mayor Mike Savage “to show him how HRM’s plans to widen Robie Street between Cunard and Almon will wreck their community.”
Halifax regional council meets at 9:30am on Tuesday, so Savage is unlikely to attend.
On Wednesday night, the issue goes to the Regional Centre Community Council, which is meeting in Dartmouth.
The council is holding a public hearing on amendments to the Centre Plan regarding the zoning of properties in the transportation reserve.
The recommended amendments would allow property owners affected by the transportation reserve to build closer to their property line after the municipality buys the land. The original wording of the Centre Plan would “pose significant challenges for development,” Grant, the planner, wrote.
While Cameron, Cowie, Zimmer, and Epstein are organizing against the amendment, a no vote from the community council wouldn’t kill the transportation reserve. It would just leave the wording in the Centre Plan unchanged, meaning owners of property in the reserve would have to build further from their front property line.